The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Turkey’s March Towards an Islamist Presidency Stalls

Results from Turkey’s parliamentary elections Sunday show that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party lost its majority in Parliament.

With 99.9+% percent of the vote counted, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) garnered the support of 41% of voters. That would give it some 258 seats – 18 below the minimum needed to keep its majority. In 2011, the AK Party received 49% of the vote, 8 points higher than in 2015. This is the first time the AKP fell short of a majority since it came into power in 2002.

The election was widely perceived as a referendum on Erdogan’s plan to change the Turkish constitution in order to grant himself sweeping, unprecedented presidential powers. Because Erdogan’s record shows tendencies toward authoritarianism, many observers in Turkey and outside believed that his proposed constitutional amendments would not just change the structure of Turkish democracy, but pose an existential threat to it.

Erdogan began the campaign asking voters for 400 seats, which would have allowed the party to change the role of the presidency unilaterally. The AK Party needed 330 seats of the total 550 to call for a national referendum to change the constitution, but they stalled at 258, so that will lead to a coalition government, and no immediate ability to change the Turkish constitution.

The Kurdish HDP, now the first Kurdish party ever to be seated in Turkey’s parliament, won 80 seats. Most westerners like the Kurds, for their resistance around Mosul in Iraq and around Kobani in Syria. They also support women’s rights and gay rights. Kurds are the Muslims who are closest to western values. From BBC: Who are the HDP?

• The HDP was founded as a pro-Kurdish party in 2012
• There are 15million Kurds in Turkey, 20% of the population
• It had the only openly gay candidate in Turkey’s elections
• A higher proportion of women ran for the HDP than any other party

Here is an election results map from the Daily Hurriyet:

Turkey Electon Map


Voter turnout was 85%. The map shows the AKP in orange, the CHP party in red and the HDP in purple. It is clear that the HDP made its gains in southeast Turkey, the area most at risk in the ISIS and Syrian uprisings. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas called his party’s showing:

A fabulous victory for peace and freedoms…As of now the discussions on a presidential system, a dictatorship, has come to an end

The Daily Star reported on the dilemma Erdogan faces. Under the current constitution, the president position (that Erdogan now holds) has limited powers. He campaigned to change the constitution, but the election’s result could leave Erdogan stranded in the presidency without the powers he sought. Bottom line: While Erdogan’s plan for Islamic presidentialism has been defeated, the AKP is still in control of Turkish politics — and likely will remain that way for a long time.

The reasons for the loss seem mostly driven by the Turkish economy and Erdogan’s policies on Syria. For the past decade or so, the AKP has ridden high on a dynamic record of promoting economic growth. But recently, the economy has been slowing down. The Turkish lira has lost considerable value, the economy has not grown anywhere near the rate that it had in the past, and there are worries about an economic collapse. And many were afraid of Erdogan’s plan for deepening Turkish involvement in Syria, Iraq and the greater Middle East.

Today, Erdogan is a wounded politician, and the AKP is weakened. This will lead to infighting within the AKP and maybe even a split of the party into several factions. In all this result will likely leave less capacity in Turkey for adventures in Syria and Egypt, or with ISIS and the AL-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra front.

As the Guardian said:

None of the four parties in the new parliament are able to form a single-party government, meaning Turkey is entering a period of volatility. Erdogan approaches politics as a binary contest between winners and losers in which the decisive aim is to secure a majority. On Sunday he lost…

The country had been sliding into an Islamic autocracy under the guise of democracy, but the Turkish electorate have called a halt to that.


Turkey’s Role in ISIS Oil Smuggling

The US and its allies aim to degrade the power and influence of ISIS, and that means reducing its flow of oil money. According to a New York Times article, US diplomats are pressuring Turkey to cut off the stream of oil smuggled across its border.

ISIS is producing between 25,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) in Iraq. Since they cannot sell this oil legitimately, they sell it on the black market. The Times quotes energy analysts who think ISIS is pocketing between $1.2 and $2 million per day. Luay al-Khatteeb, a fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center, told the Times:

The key gateway through that black market is the southern corridor of Turkey…Turkey is becoming part of this black economy.

Oil Price reports that smuggled oil could be a pivotal issue for the US and its coalition as it seeks to destroy ISIS. The militant group sells oil at a reduced price – around $25 per barrel. Initially, it sold the oil to middlemen, who moved the oil to Iran, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. From Oil Price:

But as ISIS’ operations grew, they forced out the middlemen, beat back other militant groups, and are now providing security to their own convoys of oil tanker trucks heading out of their territory to market.

This raises the question of Turkey’s role in the oil smuggling. They apparently do not condone it, but have done little to stop it. Al-Monitor reports that smuggling is a well-established tradition across Turkey’s southeastern borders with Iraq and Syria. Oil is expensive in most of Turkey, but cheap in the south. This has created an illegal, but widespread south-north trade route. The smuggling economy is not just about oil, however. It also includes other popular items and commodities, such as tea. Al-Monitor:

If one orders tea in southeastern Turkey, the servers often ask, ‘Do you want normal tea or smuggled tea’?

Overall, cutting off this source of revenue has as much strategic value as the effort to take out weapons systems (tanks and artillery) that ISIS seized in the move against Mosul. Turkey can be of help to this effort through better control of its borders.

This raises a more basic question: Where exactly does Turkey stand on ISIS?

This is a matter of controversy between Turkey and the West. The Turkish government has been criticized on three main points: that it has not done enough to close its borders to the flow of foreign fighters joining ISIS; that it has not done enough to curb radical groups at home that recruit for ISIS; and that ISIS makes much of its money by selling oil via Turkey.

These criticisms were not openly discussed before the Sept. 20 release of 49 Turks held by ISIS, who were taken hostage in June when ISIS captured Mosul. The Turkish paper Daily Hurriyet reported that there was a swap with ISIS: The Syrian rebel group Liwa al-Tawhid, another offshoot of the al-Nusra Front, released 50 members of ISIS, including the family of a slain ISIS leader.

Prior to their release, the Turkish government argued that its hands were tied, that it could not join the US-led coalition against ISIS. Now, with the end of the hostage crisis, Ankara must think more concretely about the threat just across its southern border.

In fact, Turkey has just closed its borders to ISIS militants who want to move into Syria to become fighters, while continuing to allow Syrian Kurd refugees into Turkey. However, it still has a major problem with ISIS recruiting inside Turkey. The Daily Hurriyet has traced ISIS in five Turkish cities. They report that 4,000 Turks have joined ISIS in Syria.

The NYT quotes Juan Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

Turkey in many ways is a wild card in this coalition equation…It’s a great disappointment: There is a real danger that the effort to degrade and destroy ISIS is at risk. You have a major NATO ally, and it is not clear they are willing and able to cut off flows of funds, fighters and support to ISIS.

Unlike the US, Turkey actually has to live right next door to ISIS and Iraq. The Turkish army is big enough to help cripple ISIS and is close enough to do it. They want to see Syria’s Assad leave power. They know how to deal with terrorists and have done so successfully for decades. Turkey is a NATO member. Strictly speaking, ISIS hasn’t attacked a NATO member, so Turkey can be remain coy about their ultimate involvement with the current coalition.

The success of the effort against ISIS depends as much on Saudi Arabia and Iran as it does on Turkey, but we should expect more than Turkey is currently providing to the coalition.